Navigating Your Off-Season
With the 2021 bodybuilding competition season quickly coming to a close, it can be difficult for competitors to set reasonable expectations for their off-season. Navigating post-show blues, loss of concrete deadlines, and physique changes can make any competitor or athlete feel like they're in over their head!
So what should you expect in your off-season?
Your body will probably change pretty quickly!
No, this will likely NOT be in the way that you want it to be! However, this is normal for most people. After a grueling prep your body wants to regain some body fat for survival. Unfortunately, these changes in body fat can occur pretty quickly and "rapid" gain can last well into the couple months of the off-season depending on where the person is at hormonally and psychologically. The good news is with a proper reverse diet body fat gain can be minimized, especially under the guidance of a knowledgeable coach.
Body fat gain is inevitable!
While I hate to be the bearer of bad news, it's true. You WILL need to gain some body fat, for muscle growth, hormone regulation, etc. The more you need to grow, the more you'll need to be "down with the thiccness" (with at least a semi-structured reverse diet, of course).
It's also important to not get caught in the trap of comparing your off-season to that of IFBB pros. Most pros are looking to maintain their physique or bring minor improvements, especially those at the Olympian level. This means that they can afford to stay leaner in an off-season since a lot of muscle growth isn't necessary. Not to mention, some IFBB pros may have to stay in photoshoot conditioning for sponsorships, etc., so a true "bulk" may not always be an option. If this isn't you, stop holding yourself to the same standards, gain the body fat and make the improvements the judges are asking for!
Growth takes TIME!
Yes, even with those "magic supplements" (they're not) that everyone likes to call "cheating" (again, they're not) there is NO avoiding the time and hard work! Period. So stop jumping from show to show to dodge the discomfort of gaining weight. The off-season is the foundation for which your next physique will be built. If you want to bring the same physique next year, sure skip it. But unless you're maxed out on muscularity for your division, metabolically, hormonally, and psychologically in a good place (spoiler: this isn't most people, and it's probably not you either), I wouldn't recommend it.
What are the keys to having a successful off-season?
HAVE A PLAN!
I cannot reiterate this enough, but it is absolutely crucial to have a plan going into your off-season. That plan will vary from person-to-person, but maintaining some structure is the best was to minimize rapid fat regain and maximize muscle growth. Your off-season is literally the foundation for your next prep, so you should approach it with the same level of intentionality as you did your competition prep!
Don't stop tracking!
I see many competitors make this mistake when going into the off-season because they're mentally worn out from the grind of prep and carrying the burden of both psychological and physical hunger. Couple that with a not-so-nice helping of post show blues and you've got a recipe for disaster! There's a reason most competitors will tell you reversing is harder than prep!
Even though you're tired, hungry, and probably on the struggle bus, this is NOT the time to eat intuitively! Your metabolism is at it's lowest rate and your body WANTS to regain body fat ASAP for survival! So "trusting your body" isn't the answer early into an off-season, because your body doesn't want you to be a lean, buff, calorie burning machine! That's not exactly going to end well for you if you're stranded on a desert island in the near future. Sounds dramatic, but that's what your body is preparing for, because hardcore dieting and starving on an island might as well be the same thing from your body's point of view. That's survival, my friends!
Long story short, structure is key! There will (and should ) be a time and place for untracked meals, but it's NOT fresh out of a show season. And if your goal is to take your competition career far (such as nationals, or one day joining the pro league) you should probably be a year round tracker to maximize your results. Again, this is the foundation for your next prep! You can make it easier on yourself or you can make it harder. [Authors note: I'm not shaming anyone for making mistakes and having a rough time with their off-season. I would wager that just about everyone has screwed up AT LEAST once and had a tougher prep because of it. I certainly have (a few times)! Sometimes you have to learn the hard way before your realize you're self-sabotaging.]
Focus on your training!
During your off-season you shouldn't be slacking on your training. Be intentional! It's tough to build in a deficit (like during prep), but in a maintenance or surplus phase you can really strengthen your lifts and pack on some quality muscle as long as you're utilizing progressive overload and monitoring your diet. This is the part of the season where improvements are actually made, so don't waste it! You need structure here too to maximize your gains! None of that "different workout every week" stuff that you see some influencers doing. Progressive overload or bust!
Get comfortable being uncomfortable!
Gaining weight is uncomfortable, but rushing into another competition prep isn't going to fix the problem. Don't run away from your discomfort with your physique in the off-season! This is an opportunity to learn to appreciate, embrace, and love all of the different shapes that your body can take through all stages of contest preparation (bulking AND cutting). Just because you're not noticing results as quickly as you would during a cutting phase doesn't mean that reverse dieting isn't as important! I would argue that it's more important! This is your chance to build your weak areas, ramp up your metabolism (this is critical for future preps/dieting), and address any hormonal imbalances that may have occurred due to prep (all things you can't do very effectively in a cut) in order to set the stage for a smooth sailing prep when you're ready to begin your next competition season. Don't throw such a golden opportunity away because of impatience, insecurity, or discomfort. We all say we love this sport right? Well, prove it! Do the hard parts! ALL of them (yes, I'm talking about gaining weight)!
What should your off-season plan involve?
Areas to address in training based on judge feedback
Tentative goal weight or body fat percentage (based on feedback, not fear of weight gain)
Tentative date for next competition prep
Maximization of food intake
Optimization of hormones (preferably with blood work)